By Michael D. Clark
The Cincinnati Enquirer
FAIRFIELD TWP. - For Shawn McCroskey, concentrating on his classwork can be a difficult proposition.
First, there is the clothing McCroskey has to wear at high school - a cumbersome, 25-pound, head-to-toe fire-protective uniform.
Wearing full turnout gear and brand new SCBA (Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus), seniors in the Fire Technology program at the Butler Technology Career Development Center learn how to operate the mask mounted regulators.
(Glenn Hartong photo)
Then there is the breathing mask strapped tightly to the 18-year-old's face and the 40-pound air tank on his back. He has learned to balance the tank while standing, but finds it tougher when climbing a two-story ladder onto a smoke-covered roof.
Finally, there's the giant fire hose, heavy and quick to tangle - even harder to free up in stairwells billowing with blinding smoke - which on this windy, frigid January afternoon is pouring out of the fire training tower that is McCroskey's "classroom."
As a senior member of the first-year Fire Rescue Technology class at Butler County's D. Russel Lee Career Technology Center, McCroskey's daily class lessons are a matter of life and limb, perhaps his own should he become distracted while participating in one of the most advanced high school firefighting classes in Ohio.
But McCroskey's focus is laser sharp this day as he and 24 classmates scramble up the outside and through the interior of the smoky, four-story fire tower on the school's grounds.
Despite the dangers, physical challenges and brutally cold conditions, the Oxford resident is all smiles minutes later when talking about the career center's training program for tomorrow's firefighters.
"I've always wanted to be a firefighter, so this is a pure adrenaline rush. I mean everyone is running out of a burning building and you are running in. How can you beat that?"
His enthusiasm reflects the fervor of the program's founder, Ed Emley, a retired Cincinnati firefighter.
After 26 years of running into burning buildings - including many as a lieutenant of the city's famed Squad 52, which battles the most deadly fires and hazardous waste disasters - Emley has turned his experience and energy toward teaching young people how to run into burning buildings.
The first-year program is already hailed by local and state fire officials as an effective way to train young firefighters who are eligible to test for professional firefighter emergency medical technician certification after graduating.
Cincinnati's Great Oaks Institute of Technology and Career Development in Sharonville offers similar training, but Emley said the Butler County center is the first of its kind in Ohio to also include the career center's police training school. The combined curricula are designed to help young firefighters better understand and coordinate their work with police officers when combating domestic terrorism, arson, hazardous waste accidents or other emergencies.
Frank Conway, superintendent of the Ohio Fire Academy branch of the State Fire Marshal office in Columbus, praised the specialized training for exposing more teens to the firefighting profession.
"It gives high school juniors and seniors unique opportunities," Conway said.
Fairfield Township Fire Chief David Downie calls the program "fantastic."
"Firefighting has become a lot more technical these days with hazardous materials, terrorism, crime scenes and meth labs, so this is something we've needed for a long time," Downie said. "These students come out of the program trained and with their certification and it saves local fire departments money we spend on training as the communities in this area continue to expand and add people."
Downie said his department's fire runs in the township of 20,000 residents have jumped from 885 in 1997 to 1,393 runs in 2003.
No safety lines
Emley's enthusiasm for the course was evident during a recent training session at the center.
He turns back to his students and shouts, "OK, listen up!"
"You're at live fire and you are going in!" Emley barks loudly to three students in full protective gear, air masks affixed as they kneel, then crawl into a pitch-dark, smoke-filled stairwell for a four-story crawl - dragging a fire hose - to the top of the training tower.
The 50-year-old firefighting instructor moves swiftly outside as winter winds blow harshly.
"It's just getting ripe out here," he jokes as he yells directions to another team of students, also wearing breathing equipment, who will soon be scrambling up a ladder to the fire tower's second-story roof.
"You got to get them used to working at heights with the air bottles on their backs. It weighs about 40 pounds and it throws you off balance," Emley says while surveying the students' climb.
There are no safety lines. Should students fall from the ladder, roof or down the lightless stairwell, there will be no nets or cushions to break their fall.
Students sign legal waivers at the beginning of the course acknowledging the class's dangers. (To date, no injuries have been reported.)
Emley jokes that these sort of drills teach them how to deal with the pressures and dangers of real-life firefighting.
His idea of fun includes surprising his class during last month's Christmas party in the fire tower's garage by banging on the door and yelling "FIRE!" after pulling eight donated, run-down vans into the parking lot and setting them on fire.
"We were eating chili at the party and we had to scramble into our gear and put out the fires. That's as hands-on training as hands-on training can get," said senior David Schechtman, who credits Emley with taking the class well beyond the usual textbook-based, classroom instruction.
"There is stuff in the books that is bull crap and there is stuff in the books that will save lives," Schechtman said. "With his experience, Mr. Emley knows the difference."
Students need 2.0 GPA, 92% attendance
Butler County juniors and seniors interested in joining the new Fire Rescue Technology program at D. Russel Lee Career-Technology Center are warned before they enrollthat a lapse of concentration can cost them a lot more than a lower grade.
According to the student guidebook, the two-year program includes actual firefighting in burning homes, on vehicles and in toxic smoke that requires air-breathing equipment - sometimes while hundreds of feet high on ladders. Students are warned "this is an adult career choice with severe and deadly consequences should the student not follow instructions."
The center's first class consists of 25 juniors and seniors with the seniors taking a special accelerated one-year course so they may graduate this year.
Juniors interested in the class must have earned at least a 2.0 grade-point average (GPA) and have demonstrated at least a 92 percent attendance rate at their feeder high schools. The current class of students has GPAs above 3.0 and a 97 percent attendance rate, which is among the highest of all classes at the 692-student career center.
The class is free but students must pay a $15 lab fee.
Next year, enrollment for the class will be expanded to 50 students - 25 juniors and 25 seniors - to accommodate increased demand.
About D. Russel Lee Career-Technology Center
Located in Butler County off of Ohio 4 in Fairfield Township, the D. Russel Lee Career-Technology Center serves 692 junior and senior high school students from the county's 10 public school districts.
Offering 19 career-technical education programs at the center, and more in satellite programs at various high schools around the county, the career center provides students opportunities to graduate with a variety of degrees, including Fire Rescue Technology, Allied Health, Auto Technology, Commercial Arts, Carpentry, Computer Systems and Network Technology, Cosmetology, Criminal Justice, Culinary Arts and Machine Manufacturing.
The entire career center and satellite programs, known collectively as Butler Tech (www.butlertech.org), are available to high school students who are Butler County residents. This year's enrollment is more than 6,800 high school students.
Classrooms that work
This series spotlights a local classroom in which teachers are challenging students in bold, innovative ways. To nominate a class, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, or write Bill Cieslewicz, Education Editor, The Cincinnati Enquirer, 312 Elm St., Cincinnati 45202. Please include your name, daytime phone, e-mail and school.
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